I remember my first introduction to the works of Alan Moore as if it were yesterday. I turned 17 in 2006, and the very first R-rated movie that I bought my own ticket for at the movie theatre was the Wachowski brothers’ (The Matrix) adaptation of Alan Moore’s beloved graphic novel starring Hugo Weaving as anarchist/terrorist V and Natalie Portman as besieged heroine Evey Hammond. I loved that movie when I was in high school, and at times, I still appreciate its fairly vocal outrage against the dangerous path this nation was traveling during the Bush administration. However, much like Alan Moore has with all of the adaptations of his books, Alan Moore was an especially vicious critic of this particular re-imagining of his book. I had never understood why when I was younger since the film seemed a clear indictment of fascism and a call to arms for citizens to take responsibility for their own freedom and the governments they give free reign to run their lives. I get why Moore doesn’t like the movie now (though it doesn’t forever ruin the movie for me) having now read his original graphic novel. Whereas the movie is an almost clear-cut tale of a superheroic freedom fighter in a not entirely subtle knock at the Bush administration, Moore’s original graphic novel is a far more morally ambiguous and challenging tale centered on an uniquely British take on the danger of rampant Thatcherism which makes V less a superhero and more of a flawed prophet for his unique vision of the seeds of a new anarchic England. While both versions of the work have their strengths and weaknesses, Moore’s ability to craft a tale that makes you think more than a self-aggrandizing vision of liberal victory against neoconservatism makes his original adaptation the far superior product.

Set in 1998 (or 16 years after the book was first published), V for Vendetta is a vision of a dystopian British near-future where a nearly worldwide destruction at the hands of nuclear war has caused England to fall under the tyrannical rule of a fascist political regime known as Norsefire. At the center of the tale is a terrorist named V who wages a practically one-man war against England’s new rulers. Wearing a Guy Fawkes mask (the anarchist who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605) and spouting Shakespeare and other literary luminaries, V is the keeper of culture in a world where the fascists have erased all aspects of society (blacks, Jews, gays, intellectuals) that don’t fall in line with their Nordic vision of humanity. At the beginning of the story, V rescues 16 year old factory worker (and attempted prostitute) Evey Hammond from this world’s equivalent of the Gestapo who are about to rape and murder her. She soon finds herself drawn into V’s world where he plans on destroying every inch of the current society so that humanity can rebuild from scratch and finally take responsibility for their own future. Along the way though, he sets in motion an elaborate revenge scheme against key members of the party who committed terrible atrocities against him and others at a government sponsored concentration camp.

I’m having difficulty making up my mind on how I feel about the artwork in V for Vendetta. It certainly improved as the series progressed, and there was a certain artistry in a lot of the individual frames where David Lloyd was able to accomplish quite a bit without the need of any dialogue or thought bubbles (no sound effects for the entire series). However, on the whole, it wasn’t especially aesthetically pleasing to the eye. There was a certain ugliness about every character and every building. That was probably intentional considering the story, but I certainly preferred Dave Gibbons’ artwork with Alan Moore on Watchmen. I can attribute a lot of the early awkwardiness though to the fact that this strip was originally done in black and white with color being something that was stitched on to the final product when DC would pick up the strip years after it had laid on the shelf when its original home went under. There’s a lot of strange, muted color palettes used for the strip, and while, yet again, this makes sense from a story perspective, it is very rare that is comic is ever pleasant to look at. The one great thing I will give to David Lloyd is how he handles the moments when Alan Moore would provide absolutely no dialogue pertinent to what was actually happening on screen and Lloyd had to tell the entire story (rather than the subtext Moore was providing) through his pictures. Lloyd is very gifted at visual storytelling; I just wished he approached the aesthetic part of his drawing with more of an eye for beauty, but then again, I’m probably complaining about an aspect of his drawings that he was actively trying not to achieve.

This was Moore’s breakthrough novel, and as much as this man certainly represents (along with Neil Gaiman) the apex of the literary ambitions of the graphic novel market, he was still in his formative stages when he was putting this book together, and it really shows. A lot of the dialogue (V’s excepted) is rough, especially in the stories written before the book’s years long hiatus. Moore often layers so much external dialogue over what is happening that it becomes harder to understand who is speaking and what is quite going on than in a Robert Altman film. Despite Moore’s attempts to flesh out his character, the Leader, Adam Susan, still comes off as almost cartoonishly villainous and by book’s end, comically inept. You never see any of the charisma and manipulativeness which would have needed to exist to propel this strange man to power. Nearly all of the primary antagonists of the piece are one-dimensional political strawmen, and there’s one, a Scottish gangster, that I couldn’t understand most of what he said because of Moore’s decision to spell out his dialogue phonetically. Outside of V himself, none of the characters in this book have the mental staying power that every single character in Watchmen portrayed. What made Watchmen so good was that not only were the heroes often fatally flawed, the villains often made their fair share of points. In V for Vendetta, the only character with much depth is V, and while his motivations and methods spark debate, there’s no villain worthy of the kind of thought Ozymandias provoked in Watchmen.

You have to understand though that any complaints or quibbles I have about this work are all in relation to Moore’s later work. When this first sprung on the scene, it was light years ahead of everything else out there in terms of quality and content. This was the book that let Watchmen happen. It allowed Frank Miller to write something like The Dark Knight Rises (the more I know about Miller’s personal politics, the more it puts all of his comic writing in an increasingly negative light). Neil Gaiman would be able to craft the apex of graphic novel storytelling with Sandman thanks to this early experiment. Yes, it’s flawed, but that tends to happen when you’re crafting the beginnings of a comics revolution. Watchmen remains one of the greatest novels of all time (regular or graphic), and he laid the foundations for his dystopian vision in this book. If you’re a fan of comic books, this is must read. It helped to usher in the modern world of comics where people finally took them seriously, and at the end of the day, it’s still a great read from beginning to end.

Final Score: A-

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